Editor’s note: This story was written by Shannon Barry & Sam Zlotnik as a part of the University of Florida Environmental Justice Media Intensive, hosted by the UF Thompson Earth Systems Institute and the UF Levin College of Law’s Public Interest Environmental Conference.
Featured photo from Flickr user tpmartins (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
When the COVID-19 pandemic began, Robin Lewy worried that farmworkers and their families in North Central Florida would be the last to receive vital public health information. Her concerns were especially amplified for workers who do not speak English as their primary language.
Worldwide agriculture operations have experienced disruptions in food production and transportation during the pandemic, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. In the state of Florida, where agriculture is the second largest industry after tourism, fruit and nut producers saw an average of 30% sales losses over the first two months of the pandemic.
While the industry overall has struggled, dangerous living and working conditions long experienced by farmworkers have been exacerbated by the pandemic, making this group particularly vulnerable to the virus.
Polluted wastewater at an abandoned phosphate mine in Manatee County was pumped into Tampa Bay to stop a leak from flooding surrounding neighborhoods. Stakeholders say this could have consequences for the marine ecosystem. Read more to learn what's going on, why it matters and what you can do.
How are your insect identification skills? Watch this video by TESI student Ellen Bausback to learn how to distinguish insects from other animals. With at least 12,500 species just in Florida, insects are everywhere! Globally, insects provide many services to humans and other plants and animals in the environment, but without widespread action, many of these important creatures face extinction within the next few decades.
By Florida Museum Staff Writer Halle Marchese
Florida Museum photo by Mary Warrick
If you have a computer, you can help move museum research forward in three minutes or less.
Community scientists can use Notes from Nature, a digital platform funded by the National Science Foundation, to contribute to research around the world by transcribing handwritten information about museum specimens.
Your efforts help researchers investigate topics ranging from the ideal living conditions of lice to how climate change is affecting when plants flower in California.
by Florida Museum Science Writer Natalie van Hoose
A team led by Florida Museum of Natural History scientists is asking volunteers in Florida and Georgia to look for and document sundial lupine and wild indigo, host plants of the frosted elfin butterfly in North Florida and Georgia.
Plant spotters can upload their finds to a special project page on iNaturalist. Knowing where these plants grow helps scientists locate and study new frosted elfin populations, said project leader Jaret Daniels, curator at the Florida Museum’s McGuire Center for Lepidoptera and Biodiversity.
Action of the Month:
Connect with the Natural World
In honor of Earth Day on April 22, we are challenging you to join us for the April Action of the Month: Connect with the Natural World! Alexis Irvin, communications and outreach intern with the UF Office of Sustainability, shares her personal experience with the natural world in Gainesville. Explore ways that you can incorporate more time outdoors into your routine wherever you are!
Environmental protection and social justice are deeply intertwined, and we cannot accurately communicate the environmental issues facing our state without acknowledging this relationship. In this monthly Earth to Florida segment, we will share articles and videos that help explain these connections.
On April 22, Floridians are planning to celebrate Earth Day in a variety of ways across the state. For example, in northwest Florida, community members can help restore the longleaf pine habitat, which has been decimated to less than 5% of its original range in that area. Do you need ideas for how to celebrate the day in your own way? Consider transforming some of your lawn into natural areas that require less care and store more carbon than grass. Now that spring has arrived, it’s also the perfect time to plant native milkweed – the only host plant of the endangered monarch butterfly. And although Gopher Tortoise Day (April 10) has passed, you can always take steps to protect gopher tortoises and their burrows in your yard.
When planting a small, immature tree, it can be hard to imagine its height and spread once it reaches maturity. When these trees are planted underneath power lines, this can create problems in the future – even power outages. To prevent these electrical issues and safety hazards, make sure you research how tall your tree will grow before placing it near a power line.
Florida is known for its juicy, flavorful oranges – but now, the state’s production of the fruit has dipped below California’s amidst struggles within the industry. At 51.7 million 90-pound boxes of oranges, Florida’s latest forecast projects the state’s production will be 300,000 boxes short of California’s forecast. If fulfilled, this means that this year’s season will produce 23% fewer oranges than last year’s. Researchers credit this decline to the citrus greening disease, increased development, foreign imports and hurricane impacts.
Since 1991, sea turtles from North Carolina to Florida have been protected from dredging by seasonal limits, which restrict dredging activities to the months outside of nesting season. But now, these restraints might be lifted, with officials saying they want to protect other marine species and alleviate project delays. Environmental advocates claim that’s not worth the estimated annual 150 deaths sea turtles would endure by dredging. Other conservation groups have filed a lawsuit against the National Marine Fisheries Service over a 2019 rule change that allowed some commercial fishing materials to not feature “turtle-excluder devices” in the Gulf of Mexico. These escape hatches, which would prevent an estimated 1,300 turtle deaths, were previously required on most shrimp nets for decades. This news comes as turtle nesting season is off to an early start across Florida.
After a record-breaking hurricane season last year, new forecasts predict a similarly turbulent one this year. Colorado State University expects an above-average season with at least 17 named storms, an estimated eight of these could become hurricanes, with four intensifying to major hurricanes. A similar prediction was made by AccuWeather, who estimates 16 to 20 named storms to form, with seven to 10 becoming hurricanes, and three to five powering up to major Category 3 storms. If these estimates prove true, the 2021 season would represent the sixth above-average season in a row, which is prompting the National Hurricane Center to shift its baselines.
The Florida House passed a bill with expansive measures toward the battle against climate change. It allows $100 million to be spent on sea level rise and resiliency projects every year, creates a grant program for local governments, and calls for statewide flooding and sea level resiliency plans. But as this legislation heads to Gov. Ron DeSantis’ desk, another more controversial bill was also passed: $222 million that was once awarded for affordable housing projects is now going to sea level rise efforts and sewage treatment projects. Opponents say this bill unnecessarily cuts funding for affordable housing in half when other resources could be put toward climate change mitigation.
After Florida’s first chief science officer left his position, Gov. Ron DeSantis appointed a new one in his wake: Mark Rains, the director of the University of South Florida School of Geosciences. A scientist and ecohydrologist, Rains will undertake Florida’s continuing problems with algae blooms and pollution at the intersection of science and politics.
Yet another invasive species has been discovered in Florida; this time, it's a frog that has claws. University of Florida scientists have confirmed that the tropical clawed frog has been found in the Tampa Bay area, though they haven’t yet determined whether it is likely to spread to other parts of Florida. The species, which is native to West Africa, may outcompete native frog species for food resources.
Researchers at the University of Florida are helping park managers combat poaching. After analyzing 10 years of poaching data, the researchers developed new decision-making tools that will help rangers plan patrols more strategically across the hundreds or thousands of square miles that require oversight in protected conservation areas and parks.
The U.S. Supreme Court has unanimously rejected a lawsuit in which Florida argued that Georgia has used too much water in the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint river system shared by the states. Florida argued that Georgia was using too much water to irrigate their crops, causing downstream damage to the Apalachicola River and the bay. However, Georgia maintained that the damage was caused by the overharvesting of oysters after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster sent oil spreading through the Gulf of Mexico.
A unique new museum will open next summer in St. Johns County. The Vector Disease Education Center and Science Museum seeks to educate Floridians about mosquito habitats and life cycles, as well as information about other insects like butterflies and beetles. The education center will include interactive attractions for all ages, such as an indoor beehive, live insects, models and interactive displays.
Know Your Florida
Want to impress your friends with all you know about our beautiful state? Follow us on Instagram @KnowYourFlorida and get to know your state, your nature, your history – your Florida. See below for some fun facts from this month.
Not likely to produce a peel that you'll slip on, the banana spider is a huge arachnid that can be found throughout Florida. Also called the golden orb-weaver or the golden silk spider, a female spider's body can reach up to 2 inches in length. In contrast, male spiders of this species are much smaller, with bodies measuring about 1/4 inch in length. The banana spider can spin sticky webs that can span up to three feet across. Banana spider silk is very strong, and webs are commonly run into by hikers or bikers in wooded areas. They are important to the ecosystem as they eat mosquitoes, wasps and centipedes.
Info from Wild South Florida, UF/IFAS, and Orlando Sun Sentinel.
Image from iNaturalist user egilley (CC-BY-NC 4.0).
The Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary Shipwreck Trail features nine underwater wrecks that scuba diving visitors can explore. Scattered across the Keys, the wrecks range in age, dating from the 1700s to the 1980s, with some newer ships being sunk intentionally to function as artificial reefs that aid the Keys marine ecosystem. Underwater guides are available to provide site maps and historical information. Dives at different wreck locations range in difficulty, with some being 100 feet deep and having strong currents while others are shallower. Disturbing or removing artifacts at the sites is not allowed. For more information and to read about each shipwreck, visit the sanctuary's website.
Info from NOAA and Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.
Pictured shipwreck is the City of Washington, image from NOAA.
Sturgeon are unique fish with ancient origins. They first appear in the fossil record around 200 million years ago, and their basic body plan has changed relatively little since then. They have no bony skeleton---instead their body is covered in an armor made up of bony plates. They also lack teeth, but instead are bottom-feeders that suck in their prey. Three species are found in Florida: Atlantic, Shortnose, and Gulf. Adult gulf sturgeon can grow to be up to 8 ft long and weigh up to 200 lbs. They are known for leaping out of the water, and are considered a boating hazard because they can collide with unsuspecting boaters. You can stay safe by going slow, being alert, and wearing a life jacket while out on the water.
Info from Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
Images from NOAA Fisheries.
Started in 2018, the mission of the UF Thompson Earth Systems Institute is to advance communication and education about Earth systems science in a way that inspires Floridians to be effective stewards of our planet.
Each month, a student-led team at the UF Thompson Earth Systems Institute curates Florida's environmental news and puts it into context by explaining what’s going on, why it matters and what we can do about it. We hope you enjoy this month's sampling.
This campaign is brought to you by the UF Thompson Earth Systems Institute and the Florida Museum of Natural History, with funding support from the League of Environmental Educators in Florida. Participating partners also include the Florida Native Plant Society and the Florida Association of Native Nurseries.